The Wheat and Weeds Story.

Matthew 13.24-30, 13.36-43.

Presenting another of Jesus’s parables about agriculture. It appears nowhere but Matthew, and it happens right after the Four Seeds Story. Mt 13.18-23 Historically Christians have considered it a parable of the End Times.

Matthew 13.24-30 KWL
24 Jesus presents another parable to them, telling them,
“Heaven’s kingdom compares to a person planting a good seed in his field.
25 As the person sleeps his enemy comes,
plants weeds in the middle of the grain, and goes away.
26 When the stalks sprout and produce fruit, the weeds also appear.
27 The householder’s slaves, approaching, tell him, ‘Master, you plant good seed in your field, right?
So where have these weeds come from?’
28 The master tells them, ‘A person—an enemy—did this.’
The slaves tell him, ‘So do you want us to go out and pluck them?’
29 The master says, ‘No, lest plucking the weeds uproots the grain with them.
30 Leave them all to grow together till the harvest.
At harvest time, I’ll tell the harvesters, “Pluck the weeds first, and tie them in bundles to burn them.
Gather the grain into my barn.” ’ ”

I’m gonna point out something they tend to skip: Notice whenever the apostles describe the End in the scriptures, it looks like Jesus first raptures his Christians and gathers us into his kingdom, and then the rest of the world gets dealt with. But in the Wheat and Weeds Story, the master orders his harvesters to first pluck the weeds. So this story’s timeline, and the typical End Times timelines… don’t sync up.

Hmmm. Well, I’ll leave you to fret about that, and talk botany.


Left, vetch. Right, darnel.

This story’s also called the Wheat and Tares story. Wheat is how σῖτος/sítos traditionally gets translated, though the word really means “grain,” and the KJV sometimes even translates it “corn.” Mk 4.28, Ac 7.12 (No, they don’t mean maize; that’s what “corn” means in the United States. Elsewhere “corn” is just a synonym for grain.) Sítos could refer to wheat, barley, or oats. But likely wheat, ’cause of what takes place in this story.

Tares is the old-timey word for vetch (Vicia sativa), a type of weed which grows all over the planet. Looks like wheat till it starts growing leaves and flowers. It’s also kinda toxic to humans, although bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia) is edible, and sometimes the poor ate it in medieval Europe. And fava beans (Vicia faba) are used in all sorts of dishes.

However, vetch is what John Wycliffe imagined ζιζάνιον/zizánion meant, ’cause of what he knew about English agriculture. Later English translations, like the Geneva Bible and King James Version, followed Wycliffe’s lead. But Jesus isn’t English: Which plant might middle easterners have called zizánia? And most historians figure it’s darnel ryegrass (Lolium temulentum, “false wheat,” which ancient Jews called זוֹנִין/zonín). It’s another weed which grows everywhere, and likewise looks just like wheat… till the seeds appear. Wheat turns brown, and darnel turns black.

If it’s harmless, why did the ancients make a big deal about darnel? Because darnel is very susceptible to Neotyphodium funguses. If you eat any infected darnel, the symptoms are nausea and intoxication. (The temulentum in darnel’s scientific name means “drunk.”) And of course it might kill you. Hence people sometimes refer to darnel as poison.

So Jesus’s audience realized the serious problem these specific weeds posed. The rest of us, who only read “tares” or “weeds” in our bibles, not so much. Weeds are inconvenient, and use the water meant for our crops, but otherwise they sound kinda harmless, and it should be easy to sort them out, right? Um… not so much with darnel. And not so harmless.

Typically farmers waited till harvest time to sort out which was which. Most of ’em did as Jesus described his householder advising: Wait till harvest, then pluck and burn the darnel, lest their seeds infest a future crop. Which the seeds did anyway, ’cause seeds get loose.

The kingdom, Jesus said, is like this. I leave it to the now-worried “prophecy scholars” as to how close a match it is.

Wheat, weeds, the Law, and the Pharisees.

Here’s another twist on the story Christians tend to skip: There’s a command in the Law forbidding the Hebrews from mixing certain things together. They were forbidden to plant different grains in the same field. Couldn’t breed mules out of different animals. Couldn’t wear mixed fabrics. God didn’t want the Hebrews experimenting with nature. (What he thinks of us experimenting with nature, I won’t speculate.)

Leviticus 19.19 NASB
“You are to keep my statutes. You shall not cross-breed two kinds of your cattle; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor wear a garment of two kinds of material mixed together.”

So this enemy, sowing weeds in the field, was likely hoping the man was a strict Pharisee, who wouldn’t brook any violation of the Law whatsoever, and would have to pluck all the weeds out of his field. That, or give up and burn down the entire crop as unlawful.

Turns out there were strict Pharisees, and there were loose Pharisees. Some of ’em taught darnel, though a weed only good for animal fodder, was close enough to wheat to actually count as wheat. In the Mishna, tractate Kilyaim/“Differences,” the Pharisees indicated various things they were okay with growing together, Leviticus notwithstanding.

Kilayim 1.1 KWL
A Wheat and darnel B aren’t different.
C Barley and oats, spelt and rye, beans and garbanzos, grasspeas and sweetpeas,
white beans and kidney beans: D Aren’t different, one from the other.

Rabbi Yehuda insisted they are so different, Kilayim 1.2 but he didn’t win this particular debate. For that, you gotta go to a different tractate, Terumot/“Offerings,” which realized God might not be happy with you if you swap darnel for wheat in your grain offerings. After all, priests ate some of these offerings.

Terumot 2.6 KWL
A They should put aside olives for oil for offering; B not olives for canning.
C Unboiled wine for offering instead of boiled, D not boiled for unboiled.
3 This is the rule F for anything considered different from others.
No putting aside offerings from one instead of the other, not from the good instead of the bad.
G Anything not considered different from others:
One can put aside offerings from the good instead of the bad—not from bad instead of good.
H If one puts aside an offering from the bad and replaces it with good,
what one put aside is a valid offering.
I Except for darnel instead of wheat. J It’s not a food.
K And gourds and cucumbers are all the same thing, L though R. Yehudah says they’re two things.

Yeah, they’re considered the same thing in Kilayim, but different in Terumot. What the what?

Well, the Pharisees loved their loopholes. Same as we Christians love our loopholes. Pharisees had contradictions all over the Mishna, which enabled ’em to pick one ruling or another as it suited them. If it was convenient to consider wheat and darnel the same for the sake of agriculture, go right ahead. But you’d better not poision the LORD’s priests with darnel when it’s offering time.

Anyway, depending on how strict the Pharisees were in Jesus’s area, they’d either shrug off this parable—“Yeah, makes sense to let ’em grow together and sort ’em out later”—or be outraged at what they considered his egregious compromise.

And y’know, depending on how strict we Christians get, sometimes we get the very same way. If (as Jesus explains below) the wheat are Christians, and the weeds are pagans, or even not-so-devout Christians, some of us are rather blasé about them being mixed among us… and others are downright furious about it, and want ’em gone. Banned. Excommunicated. Disfellowshipped. Whatever we’d rather call it.

End Times interpretations.

Even though the Wheat and Weeds Story comes with Jesus’s interpretation built in, various Christians view this parable very differently. It all depends on how we think the End Times are gonna unfold: Is there gonna be a millennium, or not?

The millennium refers to the thousand years of Revelation 20.4: After Jesus’s second coming, he’s gonna rule the world. Since Revelation consists of apocalypses, which are meant to be interpreted exactly like parables (i.e not literally) we don’t know if this is a literal thousand years. Might be shorter; might be longer. But it represents the next era, the new age, the age to come, or Kingdom Come: Jesus returns to take possession of his kingdom, rule the world like it oughta be ruled, leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about how he truly is (us wayward Christians included), and save the world.

But historically Christians haven’t believed in any future millennium. Really. Most Christians think Revelation’s millennium is the Christian Era, this era, where Jesus sorta rules the world… through the “Christian nations” of the world. Back when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, its Christians assumed that was the start of the millennium. Once it ended, Jesus returns to judge and destroy the world, and we all go to heaven, and there is no future earthly reign of Jesus. Just the End of Days.

Hence historically, a lot of Jesus’s end-time parables were interpreted End of Days style. And they’re still interpreted that way—even among Christians who, like me, figure there’s a millennium first. Old traditions die hard.

To them, the Wheat and Weeds Story is the final judgment: Jesus returns, his angels rapture the pagans, and they get thrown into hell. It’s the same way they interpret the Lambs and Kids Story, with the Christians on the right and the pagans on the left, and again the pagans get thrown into hell. Or the Five Stupid Girls Story, where the girls who left to get oil came back, found New Jerusalem closed to them, and now they gotta go to hell. It’s all about how unflinchingly strict Jesus is gonna be once he returns: Okay pagans, fun’s over; grace has run out. Time for hell.

It’s way too easy to leap to that conclusion if you don’t believe in any future millennium. Even if you do believe in a millennium… but you don’t understand why Jesus intends to rule the world before he ends it, and think he’s first gonna destroy all the non-Christians, then conduct a second purge of all the not-good-enough Christians before the very end. And this is the way too many “prophecy scholars” still spin it. Those of ’em who carve up history into dispensations, assume this era is one of grace… but the next era, not so much.

So to them, this harvest, sorting, and burning takes place immediately after Jesus’s second coming: When he takes over the world, he’s gonna destroy all the sinners. Which pleases them a little too much: They’re holding a lot of grudges against those sinners. Jesus doesn’t return to save the world, but seek revenge, and fulfill all their dark Christian fantasies.

Enough about them. Let’s get to our Lord, and his much better attitude towards the lost.

Jesus’s interpretation.

After Jesus told the Mustard Seed Story, the Yeast in Dough Story, and the Householder’s Treasury Story, Jesus’s students asked for him to interpret the Wheat and Weeds Story for them. Which means

  • They figured out the other stories and didn’t need an interpretation.
  • They asked for interpretations of all the stories, but Matthew didn’t bother to include ’em in his gospel; just this one.
  • They figured out all the stories—this one included—but its ramifications bugged them, so they wanted to make sure Jesus really means what they thought he means. (Hence Jesus didn’t preface his explanation as he did the Four Seeds Story, “You haven’t interpreted this parable? How will you interpret any of the parables?” Mk 4.13)

Regardless he obliged ’em.

Matthew 13.36-43 KWL
36 Then, dismissing the crowds, Jesus went into the house.
His students came to him, saying, “Clarify for us the parable of weeds in the field.”
37 In reply Jesus said, “The planter of the good seed is the Son of Man,
38 the field is the world,
this good seed is the kingdom’s children,
the weeds are the evil one’s children,
39 the enemy planting them is the devil,
the harvest is the end of this age,
the harvesters are angels.
40 So, same as they gather the weeds and fire burns them,
likewise will be the end of this age.
41 The Son of Man will send out his angels,
and they’ll pluck from his kingdom all the offenders
and those who practice lawlessness,
42 and throw them into the furnace of fire:
There will be weeping and teeth-grinding.
43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom.
One who has ears: Listen!”

The reason I lean towards that last interpretation is ’cause Jesus didn’t pick dunces as his students. By this point they were used to Jesus’s parables, were getting the hang of interpreting him, and this isn’t a complicated parable. But we humans get antsy about End Times and judgment stuff, and wanna make sure we understand him correctly. Some things needed clarification. Some still do.

The harvest is the συντέλεια αἰῶνός/syntéleia eönós, “entire completion of the age.” Dispensationalists are gonna call it the end of the dispensation, but let’s ignore them. The proper question is: Which age? Which era is Jesus talking about: This age, or the age to come? The Christian Era, or the millennium?

Ah. Didn’t think about that, didja? Not enough do.

The millennium is humanity’s last chance. Christians and pagans will get to live in that era when every knee bows and every tongue confesses Jesus as Lord. We Christians are gonna get one more chance to share Jesus with them, be Jesus to them, and love them like Jesus loves them. And if they object, “Yeah, but the historical Jesus is nothing like you say,” we can point to the literal, historical, physical Jesus on his throne in Jerusalem, and say, “Okay, I may not be 100 percent right about him, but don’t look at me, and don’t refer to your imaginary Jesus; look at him.”

And no doubt a lot of those pagans are gonna act Christian. ’Cause humans conform. You may think we don’t; just look at all the non-conformists out there! But most of these so-called “non-conformists” are simply mimicking the behavior of their other “non-conformist” friends. It’s why all the punk rock fans in my high school dressed alike. It comforts people to fit in. And in Jesus’s millennial kingdom, there are gonna be a lot of people doing their darnedest to fit in. So, like darnel, they’re gonna look like the proper crops in a wheatfield. Till pressure finally makes ’em expose their own hypocrisy.

Uprooting them before the final judgment, Jesus figures, is gonna get in the way of those pagans who really have repented and are trying to follow him. So he’s gonna let pagans and Christians alike live in his kingdom. For now.

And yeah, there are parallels in our history of this kind of behavior. We Americans live in a secular nation, with both Christians and pagans living in it, despite how much certain Christians would really like to uproot all the pagans… and how much certain pagans wouldn’t mind being rid of all the Christians to. But it’s best for us, all of us, if we live together, try to love one another, and we Christians share the gospel and be Jesus to them. Love ’em into God’s kingdom. And from there, they can help us love others into New Jerusalem.

And stop treating ’em as the enemy. Jesus states quite clearly the enemy is the devil. Mt 13.39 Dark Christians presume everyone’s the enemy; that if they’re not Christ’s they’re automatically Satan’s. Way too quick to demonize others. And on another extreme we got dark Christians who think Satan’s behind absolutely everything evil, or bad, or even slightly irritating; not time and chance. Jesus wants our eyes on the true opposition. Satan wants to undermine God’s kingdom. It’ll never succeed; it can’t even defeat us, much less Jesus. But it’ll wreak as much havoc as it can along the way.

Jesus also clarifies what the field is. That’d be the world. Not just “Christian nations.” Not just the Hebrew/Israeli/Jewish people. Nor just the church—an error John Calvin kept insisting upon in his commentaries:

[A]nd though Christ afterwards adds that “the field is the world,” yet he undoubtedly intended to apply this designation, in a peculiar manner, to the Church, about which he had commenced the discourse. Calvin @ Mt 13.24-43

Somehow Calvin got the idea κόσμος/kósmos, “world,” really means church. So when Jesus says “God so loved the world,” Jn 3.16 he really means God so loved his church. When John wrote Jesus covers “the sins of the whole world,” 1Jn 1.2 he really meant Jesus covers the sins of the whole church. See, Calvin was a determinist, and believed the only reason people get into the kingdom—or not—is because God determines we’re going to one place or the other. He doesn’t really wanna save everybody. And in order to make the scriptures fit his harebrained idea, Calvin redefined “world” to mean “church.” Which’d mean the enemy who sprinkled weeds into the church would be the devil… who’s secretly working for God. ’Cause to Calvinists, Satan isn’t the enemy so much as God’s patsy. (Though they’ll never, ever put it that way.) But enough about them.

The very idea of God’s kingdom extending beyond Israel’s borders was, at the time, radical and new. The Pharisees never taught the kingdom is for everybody on earth; they figured it was only for Israel, and specifically devout Israelis, i.e. them. Maybe gentiles might benefit by it seconhand; they never imagined God might fully intend to not just include gentiles, but make gentiles his children, same as them.

This isn’t a parable about identifying who’s a weed and who’s a stalk of wheat. Nor about converting the weeds among us; there are other parables which suggest that idea. This one’s about the fact we live in a pluralistic world. Sometimes even a pluralistic nation or society. The earth has a mixture of Christians and pagans in it. And that’s how things will be till the End.

So let me reiterate Jesus’s point: We’re not to purge the pagans from among us. Leave them be. If we’re worried about their evil influences, we need to work on our self-control, on our ability to resist temptation. Yeah, get the cops involved when people break civic laws. But otherwise be salt and be light to them. Mt 5.13-15 Leave the harvesting to the harvesters.